With the adoption of AUV technology becoming more widespread, the limitations of the technology are being explored and addressed. Like most robots, the unmanned mechanisms contain batteries that require regular recharging. (Even solar-powered robots capable of submerging must surface periodically for an energy boost.)
The average charge lasts about 24-hours on an underwater AUV, but the Navy now wants to deploy them for the kinds of 60-day missions that some unmanned aerial systems are equipped to undertake.
As a result, Bluefin Robotics researchers are developing an underwater docking station that can sit on the ocean floor. It?s no surprise that Navy officials were in Quincy, MA last month, scoping out the new system.
BOSTON GLOBE?Bluefin Robotics?s solution is much like what the auto industry is developing for electric cars: charging stations. Instead of being yanked out of the water for recharging, the robot would pull up to a refueling station on the ocean bottom.
Bluefin, on the Fore River in Quincy, has built a docking station that communicates directly with underwater vehicles, guiding them to where they can recharge and transfer data.
The refueling station resembles a cage roughly 5 by 15 feet with a cone-shaped entrance. Once it?s inside, the robot is recharged wirelessly through inductive coils ? the same technology used for charging electric toothbrushes. The refueling itself could rely on a bank of larger batteries if it?s a remote location, or a power cable from an external source, either on land or a surface buoy.
Any data the robot has gathered, such as images of the sea bed or boat traffic, could be uploaded to the docking station and transmitted to home base, which could wire new instructions to the robot.
?Launch and recovery from a boat is a very difficult process. This way you have a garage,? said Robert Geoghegan, department manager for ocean engineering for Battelle Memorial Institute, a ¬research organization that owns Bluefin Robotics. ?So instead of doing launch and recovery every day, you can do it once a week or longer.?
With a continuous supply of electricity, an AUV could work for months at a time, recharging daily, Bluefin executives said.
The Navy already has hundreds in service, usually for ¬security-oriented missions, but has a multiyear master plan to expand the fleet. It envisions networks of AUVs gathering military intelligence, such as about enemy submarine movements, or neutralizing or arming mines. These vehicles could also be launched from submarines and pilot themselves while carrying weapons.
Some Bluefin AUV applications include:
- Inshore/offshore survey
- Search and salvage
- Environmental monitoring
- Port and harbor security
- Ship hull and infrastructure inspection
- Mine countermeasures
- Unexploded ordnance
- Anti-submarine warfare
- Intelligence/surveillance and reconnaissance